June 26, 2017

HSV, Thorsten Fink, and the weight of expectation

I recently came across this German article regarding the portrayal of HSV in the country’s media. The piece is well worth a read for German speakers and, while the author gets a little too bogged down in player ratings from kicker magazine (his point is valid, but of little significance to an international audience), he also touches on a subject I want to discuss in more detail – the issue of reported underachievement surrounding the Bundesliga Dino.

Managers were initially introduced to football largely to take the heat off chairmen and, to this day, a great deal of the vitriol and criticism in times of perceived bad performance is aimed at the man in the dugout, just as he receives plaudits when things run better than expected. With that in mind, much of this analysis will be focused on the performance of Thorsten Fink and how he is judged in the context of Hamburger Sport Verein.

Like so much in football, it’s really a question of perspective – the balancing act of past success and current resources. It’s a particularly intriguing subject for me as a fan of Scottish club Aberdeen FC and an adopted Hamburger, as the clubs have many parallels. Neither club has been relegated from their country’s top division, and each side enjoyed glory days in the 1980s – both winning their last major European trophy in 1983 (indeed, Aberdeen beat HSV in the 1983 UEFA Super Cup). However, the clubs have been left behind by international brands (Bayern Munich and the Old Firm Celtic and, until recently, Rangers) in the meantime, and are now being outperformed by smaller clubs.

Smaller clubs is a moniker usually accompanied by quotation marks, but I leave them out consciously here because it is a pure statement of fact – the likes of Motherwell and Freiburg have smaller stadia, lower wage bills and fewer trophies than Aberdeen and HSV respectively. But this is a snapshot – Freiburg are performing brilliantly this season and have a chance of finishing in the top four, but will they be there for the next five years? Probably not. Will Hamburg be there in five years’ time? Well, they were five years ago. Wolfsburg, Stuttgart and Bremen have all won Bundesliga titles more recently than the Rothosen, and all are currently below them in the league. What’s more, the first two pay more to players than their Hamburg counterparts, with Werder not far behind.

The fact is that errors have been made by those at the top of the club in recent years, but it’s not fair to judge Thorsten Fink on anything other than his time in charge of the team for which he has responsibility. So rather than asking whether he is making as much of his resources as Christian Streich is in Freiburg, whether Rafa van der Vaart is as good as he was in 2008 (though I will touch on this briefly later) or whether a “club like Hamburg” should be playing in the Champions League every year – let’s ask where the club was when Fink arrived, where they are now, and what he’s done right and wrong.

When Fink took full charge at the Imtech-Arena in October 2011 (it’s worth bearing in mind that he is the first Trainer to last over a year in the hot seat since Huub Stevens from 2007–2008), HSV were rock-bottom of the Bundesliga with just two wins from their first nine matches – the hapless Michael Oenning, under-qualified Rodolfo Cardoso and sporting director Frank Arnesen all having spent time in the dugout already in that campaign. The team then made it through to Christmas unbeaten and, although their 15th-place finish was the worst in the club’s history, ending up safe from a first-ever relegation by five points meant mission accomplished.

So what’s changed in the meantime? Hamburg certainly still don’t play the best football in the league, but – contrary to some reports – improvements have been made. I have commented before on the fact that Paolo Guerrero failed to hit the net as regularly for his former club as he does at international level primarily because he was forced to take more touches with his chest than his feet in Hamburg, dealing with raking diagonals from his back four – Guerrero has moved on, but his successors tend to receive better service.

Fink’s changes haven’t just involved getting the ball on the ground a bit more (though still not enough for some) – he has also shown a willingness to switch formations, moving from the Bundesliga-standard 4-2-3-1 to a midfield diamond and back again. This can be seen as positive (being ready to alter his set-up to best outmanoeuvre the opposition) or negative (there is certainly no clear “Hamburg style” as can be seen in Dortmund or, again, Freiburg).

Of course, the return of Rafael van der Vaart has drawn a great deal of attention from all quarters, and some have been underwhelmed by his contribution. But the fact of the matter is that the role of the playmaker in general has changed a lot in the five years he spent away from the Hansestadt. It can be frustrating for fans to see him dropping back to pick the ball up off the centre backs, but in many cases it is the right tactical approach. As a known danger, he would be a constantly marked man in the traditional number-ten position, and a quick change of pace has never been an option in van der Vaart’s game. What’s more, his drifting opens up space for Hamburg’s other man with an eye for a pass, Milan Badelj, to exploit.

On a further tactical note, much was made, naturally, of the recent 9-2 defeat to Bayern in Munich. Without doubt, HSV were completely rolled over by a far better side (in fact, one of the best in Bundesliga history), and Fink can be criticised for not introducing better damage limitation measures when the team were 5-0 down at half-time, but post-match suggestions in the press that his job was suddenly on the line seemed a little far-fetched and counterproductive given that the team had been touted for a Champions League spot by the same papers a few weeks previous. That point is only emphasised by the fact that, three matches later, HSV are back within two points of fourth place and Bayern are well on their way to another Champions League final.

One area where performance deficiencies are statistically clear is Fink’s substitutions. It has been well reported that he has substituted players onto the field over 150 times while manager in Hamburg but not one of them has scored. One reasonable point of defence is that, given that he often (understandably) chooses to start with both Heung-min Son and Artjoms Rudnevs in the team, the only out-and-out striking option on the bench is Marcus Berg, who has been so disappointing in his time at the Imtech-Arena that some would rather play on with ten men.

But the fact remains that HSV are yet to overturn a half-time deficit this season. On five of the occasions where they have gone in level they have managed to win the match in the second half, but equally, on five occasions they have made it to half-time either with the scores tied or ahead and have gone on to drop points. It’s also true that, although Fink has experimented with different starting formations, he rarely changes tactical shape during a match – with the exception of occasionally attempting the rustic approach of sending on an extra centre back up front to try to grab a late goal via long balls into the box. Thus, there is certainly an argument to suggest that Fink struggles to change the course of a match in his favour through tactical or personnel changes. Nevertheless, taking the captain’s armband from Heiko Westermann and giving it to van der Vaart is one change that seems to have helped the performances of both players and turned a “humiliating laughing stock with … no hope of Europa League football” into a team “making eyes at the Champions League with … the king of psychological tricks” at the helm (both quotes from the Hamburger Morgenpost).

However, it’s also only fair to point out that unless Hamburg win in Gelsenkirchen this weekend, they’ll only have one more opportunity to win three games on the bounce this season. It’s that kind of inconsistency that brings a coach the most flak. After all, if a team is continually bad, it’s assumed the players aren’t up to standard. So how can one explain doing the double over the champions, but also dropping points against relegation candidates?

It’s probably tied in to the old matter of expectations – Hamburg players have often looked nervous when they are expected to control and win games easily, and seem far more at ease when they are the underdogs. This is also borne out by HSV’s home and away records – they lie seventh in the away table, but have only won 50% of their home games, putting them in 11th place. Of course, it is the coach’s responsibility to prepare his team for each game and instil in them the required confidence to beat the opponent, especially if they are ostensibly weaker. This is probably the area where Thorsten Fink is most open to criticism. But, as the article cited at the beginning of this piece points out, accusing the players of a “refusal to do their job”, as both fans and journalists have done, is clearly wide of the mark. Nevertheless, just as not everything that goes on at the Imtech-Arena is as bad as some would have us believe, not all those reporting on the club are obsessed with dizzying highs and shameful lows. Even after the chaotic 9-2 defeat in Munich, David Riedel of SportBILD – arguably one of the most reactionary football publications out there – tweeted his agreement with Thorsten Fink’s opinion that “Regardless of this 2:9 [scoreline], I think we’ve brought in a level of stability that wasn’t there before.”

HSV is one of the hardest clubs in Germany to be involved with: fans are either accused of being stuck in the past, or mocked for accepting the present. The manager is no match for his predecessors when the team draw with Fürth, and is the next Ernst Happel when they beat Dortmund. When players talk about Europe, they are getting ahead of themselves; when they don’t, they lack the necessary ambition for a club of Hamburg’s size. The only ones with an easy job are the journalists. But sadly, when it comes to HSV, they often perform worse than the players.

Sources: bundesliga.de, wallstreetjournal.de, mopo.de

Header courtesy of facbeook.com/Thorsten-Fink

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